How Long Until Senate Leadership Resorts to the Nuclear Option?

The appointment of Janet Yellen probably won’t provide the last straw, but other coming nominations might.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 05: Janet Yellen (R), nominee for chair of the Federal Reserve, meets with Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) in his office at the Hart Senate Office Building, November 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate Yellen will replace outgoing Fed Chair Ben Bernanke. 
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Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Nov. 7, 2013, 4 p.m.

The Sen­ate’s nuc­le­ar-op­tion armistice is close to col­lapsing — but not quite yet.

Sen­ate Demo­crats bristled at how Re­pub­lic­ans blocked con­firm­a­tion votes last week on two of Pres­id­ent Obama’s nom­in­ees: Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to head the agency over­see­ing Fan­nie Mae and Fred­die Mac, and Pa­tri­cia Mil­lett to serve on the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the Dis­trict of Columbia Cir­cuit.

Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id hasn’t ruled out the op­tion of try­ing to change the Sen­ate’s rules to ban fili­busters against nom­in­a­tions and al­low for con­firm­a­tions on a simple-ma­jor­ity vote (the so-called nuc­le­ar op­tion), lead­er­ship aides say. Even Pres­id­ent Pro Tem­pore Patrick Leahy of Ver­mont took to the floor re­cently to say that if Re­pub­lic­ans do not re­verse them­selves, “drastic” meas­ures should be taken.

It is in this en­vir­on­ment that the highest-pro­file nom­in­a­tion of the fall ap­proaches. Janet Yel­len, Obama’s pick to suc­ceed Ben Bernanke as the head of the Fed­er­al Re­serve Board, will face a Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee hear­ing on Nov. 14. Yel­len, nom­in­ated in Oc­to­ber after a lib­er­al re­volt against Obama’s pre­sumptive choice of Lawrence Sum­mers, has been spend­ing time on Cap­it­ol Hill, meet­ing privately with sen­at­ors ahead of her hear­ing.

But Yel­len’s nom­in­a­tion is not likely to be the En­ola Gay in the nuc­le­ar-op­tion battle. “I don’t think this is the right line to draw in terms of mak­ing a polit­ic­al state­ment,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. Ad­ded Dwight Fet­tig, former staff dir­ect­or to Bank­ing Com­mit­tee Chair­man Tim John­son, D-S.D.: “Giv­en the im­port­ance of the Fed chair­man­ship, ex­pec­ted broad sup­port for Yel­len, and de­sire of both parties to avoid fur­ther mar­ket un­cer­tainty fol­low­ing the shut­down and debt-lim­it brink­man­ship, I don’t be­lieve either side will want to use this nom­in­a­tion to wage a polit­ic­al fight.”

Re­pub­lic­ans have plenty of poin­ted ques­tions for Yel­len on mon­et­ary policy, but they’re still pre­dict­ing that she will get the 60 votes she’ll need to over­come the holds against her, in­clud­ing one from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who wants to see an audit of the Fed. Bank­ing Com­mit­tee mem­ber Bob Cork­er of Ten­ness­ee senses there’s no ap­pet­ite among fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans to block her. “I shouldn’t say things like this,” he said. “But, yeah, [she will get 60 votes.]”

Sen. Richard Shelby, the former top Re­pub­lic­an on the Bank­ing Com­mit­tee and a cur­rent pan­el mem­ber, voted against Yel­len as vice chair­wo­man. Even after a “cour­teous” meet­ing with her, Shelby said he has some prob­lems with her nom­in­a­tion. But will that be enough to vote against clo­ture and maybe ig­nite the nuc­le­ar spark? “I be­lieve, at the end of the day, the Fed­er­al Re­serve nom­in­ee — un­less bar­ring something aw­ful hap­pen­ing — should have prob­ably an up-or-down vote,” Shelby said.

Yel­len can ex­pect to face ques­tions about her time as head of the Fed­er­al Re­serve Bank of San Fran­cisco, wheth­er her views are too Keyne­sian, and wheth­er she fa­vors the Fed’s un­em­ploy­ment man­date over its in­fla­tion man­date. Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans cite in­fla­tion and quant­it­at­ive eas­ing as top wor­ries. “There is con­cern at this point about the mon­et­ary eas­ing the Fed’s go­ing through and wheth­er she’s go­ing to be care­ful so that we don’t get in­to an in­fla­tion­ary prob­lem down the road,” said Sen. John Ho­even, R-N.D.

Demo­crats are broadly sup­port­ive of Yel­len. Some, es­pe­cially Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren of Mas­sachu­setts, will want to hear Yel­len’s views on the Fed’s reg­u­lat­ory role, but giv­en re­cent Demo­crat­ic dis­cip­line it would be sur­pris­ing to see de­fec­tions. So, if Yel­len has the votes to over­come Re­pub­lic­an holds, what sense does it make to flip the nuc­le­ar switch over her nom­in­a­tion? aides ask. “We’re not go­ing to pree­mpt­ively go nuc­le­ar,” a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide said.

But that doesn’t mean the de­bate over Sen­ate rules has been put on hold. “I think Mel Watt’s nom­in­a­tion has already re­opened that, and [weigh­ing the nuc­le­ar op­tion] is already well un­der­way,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a Bank­ing Com­mit­tee mem­ber who sup­ports Yel­len and is one of the Sen­ate’s lead­ing pro­ponents of go­ing nuc­le­ar.

In­deed, Watt and Mil­lett could soon have com­pany as nom­in­ees un­able to win 60 votes to over­come fili­busters. Ar­guing that the D.C. Cir­cuit has too light a work­load and that judges ap­poin­ted by a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent would ad­opt a lib­er­al view on the bench, Re­pub­lic­ans have signaled they will block Obama nom­in­ees Cor­ne­lia T.L. Pil­lard and Robert L. Wilkins as well. Re­id’s of­fice said a clo­ture vote on their nom­in­a­tions could come as soon as Monday, but Re­pub­lic­ans are skep­tic­al of the nuc­le­ar saber-rat­tling, reas­on­ing that the Demo­crats know they could lose their ma­jor­ity some day.

“You can only run that drill so many times,” Cork­er said. “I’m sorry. I can’t take it ser­i­ously.”

If Re­id fol­lows through with an­oth­er show­down over nom­in­a­tions, it would be the first time since a Ju­ly truce, brokered in part by Sens. Chuck Schu­mer, D-N.Y., and John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., after a rare, all-sen­at­or meet­ing in the Old Sen­ate Cham­ber. The way Demo­crats see it, qual­i­fied nom­in­ees are en­titled to a simple-ma­jor­ity vote, and Re­pub­lic­ans are pick­ing on nom­in­ees whose agen­cies or po­s­i­tions they fun­da­ment­ally dis­agree with.

Re­pub­lic­ans sound weary of the fight and are ready to find out wheth­er Demo­crats are bluff­ing. “It’d be really bad form,” Cork­er said. “After all that oc­curred this sum­mer, to then come out and say — you might as well, if every time someone has con­cerns about nom­in­ees the nuc­le­ar op­tion comes up, you might as well be at a 51-vote threshold. If they do it, they do it.”

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